An artist once painted a picture that represented what he believed evangelism to be. It was a huge painting of a storm at sea. The sky was filled with dark, ominous clouds. Streaks of lightning ripped ferociously from them. The sea was angry, waves frothy and churning. In the middle of the picture was a capsized boat being crushed by the waves, and around it, a dozen terrified sailors were struggling for life. The only hope seemed to be a rock painted in the foreground. One solitary sailor had reached it and he was clinging onto it, the relief in his face apparent. The symbolism was evident. The churning sea was the world in which people were drowning and the rock was the Rock of Salvation - Jesus (Ps 95:1).
It was a powerful and touching image, but the artist wasn’t very happy. The more he looked at it, the less satisfied he became and finally, after some prayer, he ripped the painting to shreds and started over again. In a few weeks he had finished his painting. It seemed identical to the first one. The clouds were dark and ominous. The lightning flashed fiercely. The sea was angry. The boat was overturned. The sailors were panicking. There was a rock in the foreground and one sailor clung to the rock, but there was a difference in this part of the picture. Whereas in the previous painting, the sailor clung to the rock with both hands, in this painting he had one hand clutching the rock, and the other holding on to the hand of a friend. The artist was happy with this picture because he believed that now he had captured the essence of evangelism.
And he had, because evangelism is sharing the salvation that we have received. All of us were once drowning in the world of sin but have been saved from certain death; it is obligatory for all of us who have been saved to reach out to others who are drowning.
Jesus said: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:14-16). In a world of darkness we need to be bright lights, like stars. How can we burn really bright? In his letter to the Philippians, Paul offers a few suggestions.
"Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me" (Phil 2:12-18).
There are at least five principles mentioned in this passage that will help us burn brighter than we are already:
1. Do your part
2. Depend on God
3. Don’t moan
4. Differ from others
5. Die for Christ
1. Do your part
Paul tells us to “continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Some people read this as “work for your salvation” which cannot be the case, because salvation is a gift that cannot be earned. As Paul tells us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). Having been saved, however, we cannot live as we did before, otherwise, as Peter wrote, “the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud” (2 Pet 2:22, cf. Proverbs 26:11).
Peter also tells us how to work out our salvation: "Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins." (2 Pet 1:5-9)
Anyone who calls himself a Christian makes a profession in this declaration that they believe in Christ. However, many—dare I say, most?—cradle Christians take their faith for granted and unless they have ongoing conversion in their lives, this faith is stagnant. Ongoing conversion requires a constant effort to add to that faith the qualities that will help us to grow as Christians: goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love.
How do we do this? Only with God’s help. He inspires. Then he empowers. Which brings us to the second principle.
2. Depend on God
After exhorting us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” Paul says that “it is God who works in us to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” This implies that although we should make the effort, the fulfillment of the effort depends on God and consequently, we need to rely on him. This should bring us tremendous encouragement, but how does this work practically?
An example would illustrate most of these points very well. I was an atheist for the better part of my life—25 years—and when I rediscovered Jesus eleven years ago, my life changed completely. I realized what a miserable life I had led for all those years and were it not for Jesus, I might have continued that existence for all eternity. The knowledge of this “escape”, not entirely unlike narrowly escaping death in an accident, still leaves me shivering, and makes me determined never to return to that former way of living. This is the “working out with fear and trembling” that Paul speaks about. (Paul must have similarly shivered whenever he thought of how close he came to eternal death.)
Having decided there is going to be no return, what does one do? One wants to add goodness to the faith, because one doesn’t want to be “bad” anymore! And how does one do that? By listening to the prompting of the Spirit within our hearts and when he tells us to do something—this is God working in us to will—all we need to do is act. This is also prompted by God, which indicates his deep involvement in any change. And when he sees us working in obedience, he moves to complete it.
What God tells us to do varies from person to person and is dependant on a variety of circumstances. In my case, when I turned back, alcohol (I was an alcoholic) might have been a severe inhibiting factor in my journey, so God inspired me to give it up, and when I took the decision to do so, emptying all the liquor bottles in my house to signify my seriousness, he moved to take the very desire away. I have not had an alcoholic drink since or even felt the urge to do so. Two months later he did the same thing with my habit of smoking, and over the years has inspired and empowered me to do other things. (For the record, neither Scripture not the Church teaches that either of this habit is sinful. However, both Scripture and the Church are very clear about what to do when something causes you to sin.)
Once we understand God’s involvement in the process of change, not only does it give us the encouragement that we need, we stop trying to do things on our own “will power,” relying instead on God and his power, and often attaining victory instantly.
Peter, in this same letter that we have been looking at, confirms this: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pet 1:3)
3. Don’t Moan
Things don’t always work the way we would like them to work, even taking all the above into consideration, and usually we are to blame. Strangely, however, we blame God for our failures. Nothing new here, of course. This started with Adam when he blamed Eve for giving him the apple—and blamed God for giving him Eve!
Successive generations continued this trend, notably the Israelites who grumbled against God for all their woes through their exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, even though most of these were a result of their disobedience. In reward for their grumbling, their sojourn in the desert lasted forty long years, even though it should have taken them less than a month! As you can see, grumbling is a bad idea, especially against God, because the implication of ranting against him is that he isn’t doing his job and that you think you could do a better one. Whenever we complain—about our children, our spouses, our parents, our friends, even our enemies—this is what we are implying. We shouldn’t, and instead of complaining, we should be thanking God, because he truly does “work for the good of all those who love him” (Rom 8:28), and if we start counting our blessings we will see how many they are and how they outweigh by no small measure the things we moan about.
Arguing with each other also doesn’t serve much purpose. It creates friction and bad blood. We are not required to be in agreement with everybody—as long as there are people there will be opinions and these will differ—but we don’t need to go to war with one another over everything. And there are people who seem permanently at war. This is pitiable in the world; it is disgraceful in the Church. Many Christians constantly argue about matters of faith, not realizing that they show their ignorance of it by their manner of behavior. Peter is very clear here when he says that doing what God asks us to do without grumbling or arguing is one of the things that will help us to become blameless and pure, because actions speak louder than words. In this instance, quite literally. And the world is watching. Which brings us to our next point: we need to be different from the world.
4. Differ from others
Jesus warns us to beware of false prophets. “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Mt 7: 5). But then he also teaches us to recognize them. “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Mt 7: 16-18)
The fruit, of course, are the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). But it isn’t only prophets who can be recognized by their fruit. We can recognize Christians by their fruit as well, and a Christian who doesn’t bear these in great abundance is not bearing true witness to Christ.
There is hardly any doubt in any right thinking Christian’s mind that the world is going from bad to worse, with people behaving in any way they please, and governments across the globe enacting laws in direct contradiction to God’s Word. How does one convince governments and the people that form it, however, that they are in error? They rule with a crooked staff, but how does one tell them that the stick in their hand is bent out of shape? They will only insist that it is not and we can’t prove otherwise, unless we place a straight stick right next to it. And this straight stick is the way we lead our lives.
Consider the issue of marriage. If a couple doesn’t lead a happy life, if they talk separation or divorce every time there is the smallest conflict in the marriage, if they lead adulterous lives, if they are not affirming of their spouses, who is going to listen to them if they speak about God’s plans for man and woman in marriage? They have no witness. Ditto for everything else. So it is vital that we truly live as God intends us to live by being different from the world and leading exemplary lives, like ““children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life" (Phil 2:15-16).
Holding on to the word of life is not easy and there is a constant temptation to let go and be in sync with the world instead, but as Jesus says, “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24). Which brings us to the last point: we need to be ready to die for Christ.
5. Die for Christ
Jesus said, “whoever does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:27). Many of us believe carrying our cross means carrying life’s burdens, but in Jesus’ time carrying one’s cross meant only one thing: death. It wasn’t necessarily physical death that Jesus was speaking about, although this is also part of it; Jesus was saying we need to die to our selves: to our desire for power and position, to die to our greed, to die to our lustful passions, to die to the things of the world. This may seem rather extreme until one considers that the pay off is far greater. It is a life of peace and love, trust and hope, that the world simply does not give, despite promising to do so. And, more importantly, it is a life that is for all eternity. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10).
Paul was more than happy to die for Christ and found himself torn between his desire to be with Christ and continue to journey here on earth. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me” (Phil 1:21-26).
Paul loved to boast, but his boasting was always in the Lord. Even in the passage we are considering he boasted of the people he brought to a knowledge of Christ. It is something that we need to be able to boast about too, especially to Christ on the day of Judgment, testifying that we didn’t waste our lives on earth in futile material pursuits, but in the task of bringing the lost children of God back home, by being a beacon of hope to them; a bright light. A superstar.
Shine bright, superstar!